Parents, do you have a hard time saying ‘no’ to your children? As the grandfather of three young girls, I’m reminded of this difficulty on a regular basis. Have you fallen into the practice of not simply saying ‘no’, but qualifying the ‘no’ in a way that may turn to a ‘yes’ in the future, if some seemingly impossible scenario plays out? Let me tell you a story about how my father set himself up by doing this, and how it came back to haunt him. And now, as a 60 year-old grandfather, I still remember it. The story came to characterize unkept promises in our family.
As I was putting together my Christmas list this year for family Secret Santa gift exchange, I came across an Indian Motorcycle sweatshirt and tee shirt in a catalog. I immediately added the sweatshirt to my list, and ordered the tee shirt as a Christmas present for my brother. I did indeed receive the sweatshirt, and here I wear it after Christmas.
My father grew up without a father on the mean streets of Oakland, CA. After his mother died, his grandmother reared him. He was a teenager during the depression. He became a Golden Gloves champion, and rebuilt and raced Indian Motorcycles. I come from a family of storytellers, and grew up listening to his exploits; tales of motorcycle races, eluding the police, and other rather sketchy behavior common to unsupervised young men of any era.
Here is a 1928 Indian 402 from Wikipedia.
When we asked for a pool table at the house, my father said no, and responded with one of my favorite quotes, “Proficiency at pool is a sign of a misspent youth.” I guess he knew that from experience. So, we played pool in Steve Shuman’s basement instead.
When my brother and I became teenagers, remembering all the stories, we began to agitate for a motorcycle. This horrified my mother, of course, and she probably influenced our father to say ‘no.’ However, he did not just say no. He said, “They don’t even know how to make a real motorcycle these days. Since they quit building Indian Motorcycles, there hasn’t been a decent one on the market.” He followed by promising, “But, if they ever start making Indian Motorcycles again, you can have one.” My father thought he was set, since they quit manufacturing the Indian motorcycle when the company went bankrupt in 1953. Little did he know, but the trap was set.
Several years later, my brother and I became aware that Indian Motorcycles were once again being marketed in the United States. So, we went back to our father, and asked him once again for a motorcycle. He said ‘no’ again, using this exuse, “These aren’t real Indian Motorcyles, but some cheap import. That doesn’t count.” The reality was that a series of foreign manufacturers bought the rights to the name, and began importing motorcycles and labeling them ‘Indian.'
Interested in the history? see the Wikipedia story here.
Nevertheless, our father broke his promise. Now, given our mother’s feelings, we did not really expect him to let us have a motorcycle the first time we asked. We knew his response was more of an excuse than a promise. That didn’t stop us from pursuing it when Indian motorcycles came back on the market. We just reveled in watching how he squirmed when we asked him to live up to his promise.
For fifteen years, my brother and I worked with our father in the family business. Whenever we came up against a situation where our father would not say ‘no’, but would pose some outlandish scenario under which he would say ‘yes’, my brother and I would give each other a knowing glance as we shared the thought, “Another Indian Motorcycle.” Don't get me wrong, my father was a man of integrity. His word was his bond. He just couldn't see how these small language constructions undermined this image.
One time, we were in Washington, D.C. for a convention. While we were there, we toured the Smithsonian Institution. In one exhibit, we came upon an Indian Motorcycle. My brother and I both had our pictures made by the Indian Motorcycle, as in inside joke. The Indian Motorcycle story became family legend.
My father has been gone over twenty years, but the legend remains. When I was looking for ideas for Christmas and stumbled upon the Indian Motorcycle gear, it still resonated within me, over forty years later. I’m loving wearing my Indian motorcycle hoodie and sent my brother the tee shirt to share the family legend with him once again.
I realized when I was working a sales territory that all I really had to sell was my reputation. Could I be counted on to do what I promised to do. How important is that to you in your family and business relationships? If it is, don’t take the easy way out to avoid the histrionics of just saying ‘no.’ These subtle maneuverings are not lost on customers or children. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:37, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’: anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”